The Americana-ization of Bob Weir
Bob Weir met Jerry Garcia at Dana Morgan’s Music Store in Palo Alto, early in 1963. Before the Beatles came along and influenced them into forming an electric rock band, the pair’s group were known as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Bringing in elements of country, folk, bluegrass, and blues, they plugged in, added some folks, became the Grateful Dead and … y’all know the rest.
When I first saw the Dead, it was in a small college gymnasium. The New Riders of the Purple Sage, with Jerry Garcia sitting in on pedal steel, opened the show, and much of the material that the Dead performed that night came from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Five years later, I watched Old and In the Way take the stage with Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, and John Kahn. They delivered a stellar set of traditional bluegrass.
As the Dead greatly expanded their music vocabulary through the years, my personal interest in them went from attending dozens and dozens of their concerts throughout the ’70s, to finally drifting away. Honestly, I just got bored with the scene rather than the music. Nonetheless, it’s always surprised me that so many fans of traditional music — as well as writers, reviewers, and even publications such as (the previous incarnation of) No Depression — never seemed to be able to draw the distinction between their jam band rock-ola experience and the fact that the Dead’s origins were grounded in American roots music.
To put it bluntly, I believe the Grateful Dead were doing Americana music long before a bunch of people came together in the late 1990s and actually decided to call it Americana.
Which brings me to Bob Weir.
In August, it was announced that in support of his new solo album Blue Mountain, Weir would be in Nashville during the Americana Music Festival and Conference to take part in a workshop where he’ll play songs from the album. Producer Josh Kaufman will be on hand and Buddy Miller will moderate a Q&A. Here’s a little of what to expect:
Whether it was hocus, pocus, magic, or an outstanding lobbying effort from his record label, publicist, and management team, the week after that event was scheduled came big news that Weir will receive the Lifetime Achievement: Performer award at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on September 21. Whatever the circumstances surrounding Weir being selected, this recognition is more than well-deserved.
As far as I can find, there’s never been any acknowledgement of the Dead’s contribution to the genre from the AMA. Its members have earned some accolades from the association — Jerry Garcia was given the President’s Award in 2008, and Dead lyricist Robert Hunter got the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting in 2013 — but the band itself has never actually been named. Feels to me like there’s an opportunity there in the future to do the Dead right.
While it’s impossible to separate the man from the Dead, there is a documentary by Mike Fleiss titled The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir, which is a great starting point. Available on Netflix for the past year, it offers a detailed oral history with great archival footage and music. But it was the intimate and loving look at Weir’s life today as both husband and father that filled my heart … a true lifetime achievement on its own.
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